“I could easily do without the post-office.” (Walden 61)

“For my part, I could easily do without the post-office. I think that there are very few important communications made through it. To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life … that were worth the postage. The penny-post is, commonly, an institution through which you seriously offer a man that penny for his thoughts which is so often safely offered in jest.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

Just think what Thoreau would say about email, or blogs, or Twitter. (And what would you think if you’d ever written him a letter?! Was mine one of that one or two? What if you had written him a dozen letters? Would you be inclined to write him any more?)

One thing I think Henry didn’t understand, and that is talking (or corresponding) for the sake of keeping in contact, to maintain a relationship. If we all waited until we had something profound to say, most of us would never speak. A lot of times what’s most important is not what you say, but just the fact that you took the time to stay in touch. (Admittedly, I’m terrible at this.)

Isn’t that the real purpose of chatter? Our primate cousins spend a lot of time in mutual grooming, picking parasites off each other — it’s the glue of their social bonds. We have language, so we can bond differently, but the two activities aren’t necessarily so different.

The question is, how much do you need? The thing that makes this sound so bizarre is that we can hardly even imagine being limited to what Henry was willing to do without. In his world, the only instant communication was face to face. The present-day expectation of constant contact was inconceivable to him, and I’m sure he would think it was unhealthy. How can you be a whole person if you are never alone with your thoughts, if you never have to work things out for yourself, unaided?

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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